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Labour should talk about England (but no action, please): Ed Miliband on the Union

The Labour leader has set out his defence of the Union in a speech that appealed to his party to recognise England and show pride in the English. But is this enough, with Scotland considering independence and the English question waiting to explode?

Niki Seth-Smith
8 June 2012

It is time for the Labour party to start talking about England, and her place in the Union. This was Ed Miliband's message, delivered yesterday morning at the Royal Festival Hall, looking over the Thames that so recently hosted the Queen's flotilla.

Timed to fall between the Jubilee and Euro 2012, the 'dance of flags' (the Union Jack soon to be lowered for the St George's Cross, and back to the Jack again for Team GB and the London Games) became a touch-stone for Ed's defence of the Union. To decide on one flag, one nationality, is a “false choice”, he argued: the co-existence of multiple identities lies at the very heart of what it means to be British. There was nothing new in this appeal to a British identity “that has always been civic and inclusive”: it was a case of 'one more time with feeling' for Ed and in that he succeeded, weaving the well-worn narrative anew with his story as the son of Jewish refugees who found not only sanctuary on these shores, but a profound acceptance. It was a prime ministerial speech (as two audience members in the Q&A noted), an indication of the Labour leader's growing confidence.

But behind the chest-puffing (“we are stronger together”, “celebrating our differences”, “a country of which we should be proud”) was the crucial argument that Labour's defence of the Union would not be weakened - but in fact was reliant on – recognition of England and the English. “Now more than ever, as we make the case for the United Kingdom throughout the United Kingdom, we must talk about England.” This was an appeal to break the taboo, especially among Labour Party members south of the border, where England is so often a dirty word, and not leave the identity debate to the Scots and Alex Salmond, “…because if we stay silent, the case for the United Kingdom in England will go by default.”

Good that Ed desires this conversation (and credit to new think-tank British Future for hosting the event and pushing to get identity on the agenda). But who will be the ones talking? What this speech certainly did not do was open a discussion with the English public (it stopped short even of addressing them). The clue is in the 'we'. “We should embrace a positive, outward looking version of English identity”, “We should also proudly talk the language of patriotism”. This was ultimately a message from the leader to his party, the majority of whom run scared of English identity for fear that it's expression will lead inexorably to the dissolution of the Union and a 'forever Tory' isolated England. 

But getting Labour politicians to 'have the conversation' is not going to build the “positive” English identity and “progressive patriotism” that Ed says he seeks. Nor will it stop Salmond – the immediate goal. As some-one who is undecided on the desirability of an English parliament, I can see Ed's point that there is little demand from the public for new institutions to represent the English. But to conclude 'they don't want any' before asking the question jumps the gun. Claims that the English “don't yearn for simplistic constitution symmetry”, that our “minds don't work in spreadsheets”, that we don't want any more politicians, play the classic establishment card: this is all very complicated, it's boring anyway, best leave it to the grown-ups. 

But this is about the voice of a nation. In the Q&A this point was raised again and again. The BBC's Norman Smith questioned Ed's dismissal of the need for institutional expression. A man from the Herald asked for his response to the idea of a 'family of nations' with separate institutions, while Anthony Barnett argued that further devolution of power from London within existing structures, as Ed proposes, could not answer the problem of voice. This drew an “Anthony, you and I disagree” and a swipe at Salmond's 'add-ons' to his promised independence (the Queen, the BBC) that got laughs but failed completely to confront the challenge of the social union.

In conclusion? Ed talked a good talk, and that's all we can expect (for now) from him: discussion. A shift in the language of the Labour party is a good start, but it can't be enough. What real difference will ensue apart from, perhaps, making Labour more electable? The conversations already taking place up and down the United Kingdom will only lead to further rancid frustration and cynicism, unless there are results that go further than Labour Party members joining in. 

Ed would be wise to listen to what was my favourite part of his speech this morning: “The essence of English identity is not found with the grandeur of public office or in Westminter and Whitehall / but in the courageous communities across our land” - communities that want more than a benevolent pat on the head. 

The full speech, Defending the Union in England, can be found here

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